Pompeii, is a preserved ancient Roman city in Campania, Italy, 14 miles southeast of Naples, at the southeastern base of Mount Vesuvius. Around noon on August 24, 79 CE, a huge eruption from Mount Vesuvius showered volcanic debris over the city of Pompeii, followed the next day by clouds of blisteringly hot gases. Buildings were destroyed, the population was crushed or asphyxiated, and the city was buried beneath a blanket of ash. For many centuries Pompeii slept beneath its pall of ash, which perfectly preserved the remains. When these were finally unearthed, in the 1700s, the world was astonished at the discovery of a sophisticated Greco-Roman city frozen in time. Grand public buildings included an impressive and an amphitheatre; lavish villas and all kinds of houses, dating back to the 4th century BCE, were also uncovered. Inside were some preserved remains of people sheltering from the eruption; others lay buried as they fled; bakeries were found with loaves still in the ovens. The buildings and their contents revealed day-to-day life in the ancient world—and stirred 18th-century interest in all things classical.
It seems certain that Pompeii, Herculaneum, and nearby towns were first settled by Oscan-speaking descendants of the Neolithic inhabitants of Campania. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Oscan village of Pompeii, strategically located near the mouth of the Sarnus River, soon came under the influence of the cultured Greeks who had settled across the bay in the 8th century BCE. Pompeii is first mentioned in history in 310 BCE, when, during the Second Samnite War, a Roman fleet landed at the Sarnus port of Pompeii and from there made an unsuccessful attack on the neighbouring city of Nuceria. After the war, Pompeii, along with the rest of Italy south of the Po River, received Roman citizenship. However, as a punishment for Pompeii’s part in the war, a colony of Roman veterans was established there under Publius Sulla, the nephew of the Roman general.
Mt. Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 CE. A vivid eyewitness report is preserved in two letters written by Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus, who had inquired about the death of Pliny the Elder, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum. Pliny the Elder had rushed from Misenum to help the stricken population and to get a close view of the volcanic phenomena, and he died at Stabiae. Site excavations and volcanological studies, notably in the late 20th century, have brought out further details. Just after midday on August 24, fragments of ash, pumice, and other volcanic debris began pouring down on Pompeii, quickly covering the city to a depth of more than 9 feet and causing the roofs of many houses to fall in. Surges of pyroclastic material and heated gas, known as nuées ardentes, reached the city walls on the morning of August 25 and soon asphyxiated those residents who had not been killed by falling debris. Additional pyroclastic flows and rains of ash followed, adding at least another 9 feet of debris and preserving in a pall of ash the bodies of the inhabitants who perished while taking shelter in their houses or trying to escape toward the coast or by the roads leading to Stabiae or Nuceria. Thus Pompeii remained buried under a layer of pumice stones and ash 19 to 23 feet (6 to 7 metres) deep. The city’s sudden burial served to protect it for the next 17 centuries from vandalism, looting, and the destructive effects of climate and weather.
The city of Pompeii was shaped irregularly because it was built on a prehistoric lava flow. Excavations indicate that the southwestern part of the town is the oldest, but scholars do not agree on the stages by which the walls were expanded or on who the builders were. The walls are 2 miles (3 km) in circumference, and they enclose an area of about 163 acres. The public buildings are for the most part grouped in three areas: the Forum (elevation 110 feet), located in the large level area on the southwest; the Triangular Forum (82 feet), standing on a height at the edge of the south wall overlooking the bay; and the Amphitheatre and Palaestra, in the east. The Forum was the centre of the city’s religious, economic, and municipal life; it was a large rectangular area surrounded by a two-story colonnaded portico. The Triangular Forum is the site of the Doric Temple, the oldest temple in Pompeii. Between the 3rd and the 1st century BCE a theatre, a palaestra (sports ground), and a small covered theatre were built to the east of the Triangular Forum. The temples of Zeus Meilichius and of Isis and the old Samnite palaestra were nearby. n the east corner of Pompeii was the Amphitheatre, and to the west a large palaestra was built to replace the old Samnite palaestra. Baths were scattered throughout the town.
Importance as a Historical Source
The extent of the archaeological sites makes them of the greatest importance, for they provide a unique source of information about so many aspects of social, economic, religious, and political life of the ancient world. The bakeries, complete with mills, kneading machines, and ovens, some still containing loaves of bread, show how this staple of everyday life was produced. The shops of the sculptor, toolmaker, and gem cutter, as well as the factories for fish sauce and lamps and the many wine and food shops, document other aspects of ancient life. Pompeii was a busy port town that exported products throughout the Mediterranean region. Merchants and tradesmen found food and lodging near the city gates and the Forum. Further, Pompeii offers the best opportunity for the study of city planning and land use in an ancient city. Excavations since the mid-20th century have revealed an unexpected amount of open land. Unfortunately, the excavations are constantly endangered by the ravages of weather, tourist traffic at the site, and destructive vegetation.